laos & thailand: same same but different

“The good news is that to get from Siem Reap to Vientiane, the bus won’t cut through Thailand, so we only have one border crossing to do. The bad news is that it’s going to take 18 hours. You OK with that?” I asked a sleepy could-not-care-less James after the third morning in a row of 4:15AM wake up. I deciphered a mumble/grunt that sounded a lot like, “Don’t care either way.” Permission granted. 

And so began not the 18 hour journey to Vientiane, but the 25 hour long one. The one with 6 hours in a poorly air conditioned minivan, 18 people packed shoulder-overlapping-sweaty-shoulder, knees jammed into the seat in front of you and your bag directly under your feet. The one where the road to the border turned into a 20kph route because of humongous potholes, gravel and chewed up asphalt through fields and jungly landscape. The one with the obvious scams at the border, yeah, just give me your passport and I’ll take it to the border for you and why am I not allowed to exit Cambodia on one passport and enter on a different one? No reason, other than it’s free. The one where you get dumped at the border and told to walk across because there’s another bus over there, get on it. The one where you get kicked off that bus at 8:00PM in the middle of nowhere in the dark, in a country where you have no local currency and have no idea what the exchange rate is, ushered onto a tuk-tuk to go to another bus station and have your decoy wallet and phone stolen in the process. The one where you arrive at the second bus station and load a bus held together with packaging tape: that sleeper bus had been through a lot. The one where you huddle in the back under your PowerPuff Girls blanket, wondering exactly how many people had sweat the night out under it. The one where the bus breaks down six times, including one flat tire in the space of 11 hours and your travel buddy won’t even complain about it with you because he’s knocked himself out with OTC Valium. The one where I get to pee in the jungle at 5:00AM because I can’t hold it for 25 hours. The one where I get hungry at 6:00AM and reach for my Oreos only to find that rodents have made a meal out of them. The Oreos were 3 inches above my feet all night. 

The one where we arrived in Vientiane, exhausted, sweaty and annoyed and realized… so, there’s not much here. Vientiane has a mock Champs d’Elysees which gave me a dose of deja vu and a big gold temple. That is all, folks.

But no matter, Vang Vieng was the escape plan and we employed it immediately. Vang Vieng probably once was just a bus station by a river with some nice karsty mountains, but people realized that maybe if you add some tubes and a couple buckets of alcohol, tourists will stay a bit longer (surprise!).

Even though many of the bars on the river have been shut down because they were killing too many drunk British people (did you know you can’t swim very well if you’re blind drunk?), the party scene isn’t over. You can observe this phenomenon from the banks where backpackers are stumbling in the near dark out of their tubes, more concerned about spilling their drink than they are about falling flat on their face. Or you can partake, which I think is probably more fun. The place is designed to be hungover and high in: restaurants have soft platforms covered with cushions with low tables so you can get completely horizontal in them. They play Friends on repeat so you can spend hours in there. They have “happy” menus: food and drink laced with weed, opium and mushrooms. Everyone is happy in Vang Vieng. Plus, why do laundry when you can get two drinks and the bar hands you a brand new tank top on the side? You laugh, but people are actually doing this. No names named. Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are peppered with backpackers wearing different colours of the same exact shirt: Sakura Bar. Drink triple, see double, act single. I don’t support this. I support clean laundry and free shirts. 

Once we unstuck ourselves from VV, we were dropped in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site and also our last stop in Laos. It’s a pretty little place on the Mekong with a temple or two. Each night, the main street transforms into a night market with the tents hanging low. I watched a few guys knock themselves in the forehead, which was cringe worthy until James did it. Then all of a sudden it was kind of hilarious. 

In the early hours of the morning, monks stream out onto the streets and the people donate food and sticky rice to them. The ceremony is called Tak Bat and takes place in silence. The monks move in lines, very quickly. I could barely keep up without jogging. The sheer number of monks in the city is impressive. I still find it odd when I see them taking selfies on their iPhones or lugging around cameras bigger than mine, but I suppose it’s 2015. 

The most popular thing to do out of Luang Prabang is chase waterfalls. Kuang Si Falls being the most popular. I made the mistake of thinking it was going to be a 3 minute visit, a one stop photo op stop, but you could easily spend the better part of the day there swimming and wandering around.

And then we come to the notorious buffet. The first day we got there, I naively dismissed a fellow Canadian puking over the balcony above my window as why would you ever get that wasted? I apologize for that snap judgement. The first night and the following days, it seemed like our entire guesthouse went down with food poisoning, the buffet being the prime culprit, but nothing seemed safe. Some said it was the sandwich ladies, but we’d been eating sandwiches every second meal. So James and I strutted in our apparent immunity. You can get some strange things on the street: Lao whiskey with little cobras and scorpions curled up inside the bottle, coconut pancakes and a whole load of things we couldn’t and didn’t want to identify. 

The buffet lines a side street of the night market. It’s 15,000kip for a humongous plate of food (cheap as it gets really) and it’s a backpacker magnet. I was pretty confident I was above food poisoning: after all, I’d chowed down that buffet with absolutely no problems. What got me was street Pad Thai and spring rolls. That isn’t even worth food poisoning. So after chucking up everything I possibly could heave out of my stomach the next morning -I can never unsee the strings of carrot- a perfectly not-food-poisoned James handed me water, gum and 3 peanut butter Oreos and I headed for the airport, trying not to expel bodily fluids in public. I exited Laos about the same way I entered it: not pleased, but I made it. 

To the land of Pad Thai. 

Chiang Mai sucked in tourists from all over Southeast Asia (and the world) for its annual Loy Krathong or Yi Peng, the Festival of Light. You’ve probably seen photos of it and they might remind you of a scene straight out of Tangled. This festival was the reason Thailand was in my plans. I was ready for lanterns so thick and furious in the air that it was all I could see, all my lens would see. Postcard worthy. I wanted so badly for it to look like those photos: packed, warm light, orange and yellow. This year, the mass lantern release was cancelled because the airlines complained. Instead, the lanterns were released in the streets from no particular location, at no particular time. The streets were packed, parades marched through the crowds, the river filled with burnt out floating candles and tourists and locals alike let their lanterns fly into telephone poles, trees, overpasses and buildings. Ladyboys were in full force, glittering, made up, in dresses so tight I wouldn’t think of wearing them. Fluorescent lighting dominated the entire scene save for the fireworks above our heads. Maybe you’re thinking, wow this sounds awesome. It was. But the little (huge) part of my brain that revolves around taking a good photo was absolutely, devastatingly crushed. There was no way I could capture this scene and come out with what the mass lantern release at Mae Jo University had so perfectly set the stage for. No telephone poles, no tall buildings, no trees, no bright white floodlights. Or perhaps I just failed as an amateur photographer. Regardless, the lanterns kept flying for hours above our heads. They would be found across the city in scraps the next morning. 

Pai is a tiny town in the northern mountains, once unheard of, but now flooded with tourists. The road there will give you motion sickness or heartache for a touring bike or a motorcycle. There’re no tuk-tuks in Pai, so the only way to get around is on a scooter. Here’s the fun part: put hundreds of first time riders on scooters, on the wrong side of the road and what you get are couples walking around with the same side of their bodies bandaged, people on crutches and people in slings. All of them still found on Walking Street, beer in hand by 8:00PM, devouring corn on the cob and butter bread. Backpackers don’t get stopped by much. I saw a girl go to the hospital in Luang Prabang for a severely twisted ankle, and she came back with a jungle stick: their version of crutches, I suppose. No one even thought this was blink-worthy. Pai attracted a certain type of traveler: barefoot, tie-dyed and dreadlocked. Pai has waterfalls, hot springs, cute coffee cafes, a big canyon, decent sunsets and winding roads for days. 

The only thing in Chiang Rai is the White Temple. The White Temple is new, constructed in 2007, so has absolutely no history. The other thing in Chiang Rai is a cat cafe (no one ever mentions this), which serves waffle towers with ice cream… so I was a happy girl. James will deny it, but he enjoyed the cat cafe more than the White Temple. 

Thailand is known for elephants. Mostly, tourists riding elephants. You see them everywhere, selfie sticks and GoPros in hand as they straddle a giant walking down paths or the road. For me, elephants in the tourist industry fall into the same horrid money-sucking category as the Tiger Kingdom: vying for a top spot on the list of things that make me angry. At the Tiger Kingdom (or similar places), you can hang out with fully-grown tigers or bottle-feed tiger cubs. Usually they’re chained, but sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re heavily sedated and if they so much as look at you, an employee is ready to smack it into submission. Maybe they’re well fed. Maybe they grew up there. Maybe it’s all they’ve ever known. Have you seen Blackfish? Same principle. It’s a wild animal. Elephants are, in my opinion, the worse off. Wild elephants don’t volunteer to give people fun little rides for the rest of their very long lives, so one of the practices to domesticate  or “train” an elephant is called “the crush”. Usually, this happens when the elephant is young. They are ripped away from their family and usually tied in one spot for days on end. During this time, the mahout (elephant “trainer”) will beat, torture, starve and dehydrate the poor thing, his sole purpose being to “break the elephant’s spirit”. It’s true what they say: an elephant never forgets. So if you take anything away from this post, if you’ve actually made it this far, do not ride an elephant, do not go to an elephant camp where you get to take cutesy photos with them and do not go and take a tiger photo. They aren’t meant to be there and they don’t deserve to suffer for a bucket list. If you want to interact with an elephant, because I did, go to a place like Elephant Nature Park. 

No, you won’t ride them. They won’t pick you up with their trunks, spray you with water or give you trunk hugs. They won’t pose adorably, they won’t draw photos for you and essentially, in this sanctuary, they don’t do a single thing they don’t feel like doing. This piece of jungle is home to over 60 elephants and although they aren’t related, they have formed family groups, like they would in the wild. Here they are free to roam wherever they want. Many are disabled and require vet care due to injuries they acquired during their touristy activities, labour “careers” or stepping on landmines. 

After a full day of cooking classes taught by “Yummy” at Thai Farm Cooking School (I always end a cooking class with full blown motivation that I am going to be the best house wife ever, or the mom that is everyone’s favourite), we got on the night train to Bangkok. We were asked seven times by the same person if we would like to buy Pringles for five times the regular price. As if. When we arrived in the morning, I went to see Mom. The tuk-tuks in Bangkok were shockingly colourful. The buildings were shockingly high. Everything was big. Everything was expensive. And when I walked into mom’s hotel room, which wasn’t actually a hotel room but a massive two bedroom suite, the backpacker in me was both ridiculously excited and a little bit repulsed by the extravagance of this city. 

This feeling would continue throughout the rooftop bar, where the cheapest cocktail cost the equivalent of $21CAD, or in my world, three nights of accommodation. It would continue when instead of taking a sleeper bus for 13 hours, somehow I was flying instead. It would come to a spearpoint at our little beach bungalow that was actually airtight with air conditioning and hot water. Fresh towels on demand, breakfast included, a mini bar in our mini fridge, housekeeping on demand, essentially… anything on demand. 

We went for a day tour and I knew what to expect: “They’ll just take us to where all the other boats are, set us loose with snorkels, go to the beach for a BBQ and watch sunset, then swim in phosphorescence. Except with a lot of other people.” Yes, but it’s mom, and mom has to do it, just once. Our first stop was in the middle of nowhere, dark blue water, with about 20 other longtail boats tied up to each other. In the centre of them was a great many people, floating around in life jackets. Some of them were hanging onto life buoys, while a Thai person towed them around. The result of this first stop was me being smug and Mom and Judy laughing themselves to tears that they had been dropped off in a buoyed off babysitting zone. To boot, worst vis I’ve ever been told to snorkel or dive in. The BBQ wasn’t bad -I gave most of my food to a starving dog. They took us to an island saying there were turtles there, but instead of following them I made a couple of snowmen out of sand and got nostalgic for the winter I’ve escaped. Mom and Judy came back saying that they saw no turtles, but of of course the guide did and they unfortunately moved “very fast!” Since when do turtles move fast?

The phosphorescence made up for it with clouds of underwater sparks. They were so big that they washed up on the beach and you could pick them up and smush them onto your hands. Mom thought that was mean, but it looked like glow in the dark paint. While the nightly thunder and lightning started to roll in, we snorkelled in the pitch black, mom exclaiming like a small child, “This is magical! I feel like Tinkerbell!”

But with all the food and the pristine beaches and freezing dependable air conditioning, some little part of me wasn’t at ease. I still don’t know exactly how to pin it. Maybe it missed the sketchy street food I was used to. Maybe it missed the scavenging aspect of the backpacking way. I don’t know. When I haggled my way down from 300baht to 200baht to get back to being scrap poor -Khao San Road- I could feel it waking up again. When I walked to my hostel and took three wrong turns in strange alleys bordered by water-stained buildings, it was in full force. And when I walked up the stairs in that hostel with no guard rails, each floor painted some different obnoxious, chipped colour, boasting little uneven faded postcards of places all over the world… when I opened the door to James’s room, my room, that’s all it was. It was a room, with a mattress on the floor, a couple of towels and air conditioning. And flopping down felt like coming home. 

We spent the night on Khao San Road. When I told him he quite possibly may be an alcoholic, his defence was, “I’m Australian. Know the difference.” We ate fried scorpion off a stick between sips out of a bucket full of lychee bits. The proper way to walk away from a night on Khao San Road is cash broke, and we are proper people. If there’s anything I’ve learnt in Thailand, it’s that things don’t have to be perfect. Usually, it’s better that way. You don’t necessarily get what you pay for. They can run on Thai time. They can come out with sweet and sour when I order red curry. They can even come out with Pad Thai and try to convince me it’s not Pad Thai, it’s fried noodles (I threw that up, how could I possibly forget the stringy carrots?). It doesn’t matter. Take the jungle stick crutches in stride and, could we please get another large beer over here for the Australian in denial? Thanks.

Cheers from Gili Air, Indonesia. 

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